The Art of the Smear-Campaign

It’s a well-known fact that we love to smear our public figures. The Guardian’s Sydney Blumenthal writes:

In the US, there is virtually no legal protection for a public figure, especially a political one, from defamation. Libel laws are de facto defunct. Public opinion is inevitably swayed by this tainting, all journalism has fallen under suspicion and truth cannot easily be distinguished from malicious fiction.

Indeed, our history is full of pivotal media-moments in which scandal has risen to a level of social importance. Bill Clinton is not unfamiliar with his reputation coming under question. Though the Lewinsky scandal was, indeed, based in truth, in the end it had no provable impact on any American policy or the policy decisions of president Clinton. Yet it still led to him being impeached. I’m not saying this to defend Bill Clinton (I have a bone or two to pick with him) but rather to hi light the fact that smear campaigns, though having little relevance to policy-issues, do greatly influence public opinion.

Even more troubling is the fact that sometimes these smear campaigns are based upon falsity. Matt Drudge, of the conservative (and often sensational) Drudge Report published a piece alleging Bill Clinton to be the father of an Arkansas teen.  It’s certainly sensational and is full of venomous language, but as far as I can tell the sources are mainly tabloid papers.

Another famous smear campaign is that surrounding Andrew Breitbart of BigGovernment.com and his smear campaign against USDA official Shirley Sherrod when she spoke at an NAACP dinner. George Curry, an NNPA columnist writes:

It began with an Internet posting at 11:18 a.m. on Monday, July 19. Right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart uploaded a heavily-edited video of a speech Shirley Sherrod gave to an NAACP dinner in Douglas, Ga. It was posted under the headline “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism” on BigGovernment.com, one of Breitbart’s sites.

The slanted editing made it appear as though Sherrod was boasting about discriminating against a White farmer when, in fact, her point was that people of all races should move beyond their personal biases.

A blow-by-blow reconstruction of events was developed by examining news accounts, doing some original reporting and reading a detailed report by Media Matters, the news monitoring group.

It’s a shame that this sort of trash can get coverage in the mainstream media. These falsities not only hurt people’s careers, but distract people from the real issues our society has at hand. A free press is supposed to beget an informed citizenry, not an arena where people destroy one anthers reputations for personal gain.

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How I See It

How I See It

This family can say goodbye to net neutrality. Here we see a suited man (presumably working for an internet service provider) cutting off a families connection to the internet. The cartoon demonstrates that this will, in turn, cut this family off from “consumer choice,” and “innovations” while only leaving them with viral videos. Though satirical, the image carries a very poignant message: our world could look like this if we do away with net-neutrality. I don’t want it. Do you?

This photo comes from the blog of Bill Shrier.

Pleading Neutrality

PBS ranks the US as the fourth most developed country in the world. While it’s easy to look at news reports like this and eagerly pat the US on the back for its spot in the world, a counter narrative is boiling under the surface. I think a key tool in gauging a country’s so-called “development” is looking at how the utilize the internet as a tool. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the United States is not only falling behind in terms of internet speeds but also we are dangerously close to destroying our concepts of net neutrality.

Sam Gustin writes:

I’ll come right out and say it: The U.S. broadband infrastructure — both in terms of speed and coverage — is pathetic and embarrassing. The latest evidence of this travesty comes from a study by the Communication Workers of America which, using data compiled by speedtest.net andspeedmatters.org, that ranks the U.S. 28th among developed countries, behind more wired (but less economically significant) nations like Sweden and the Netherlands.

It’s a big jump from #4 to #28, and for a country that consistently re-asserts its identity as exceptional this statistic should certainly raise some eyebrows. Here we are, the United States, the world hegemony,  and we lack the infrastructure to remain competitive in terms of internet speeds. In terms of an impact, the eroding internet infrastructure reinforces already deep inequality in this country. Indeed, as Gustin shows, the parts of the country with the best/ fastest internet service are the most densely populated, and more often than not, the most affluent parts of the country. Citizens in rural and poorer areas of the country are still met with glacial internet speeds. How can we retain an informed citizenry if a startling portion of us still don’t even have access to decent internet service? If all the information is now on the internet, shouldn’t all the people be too?

But even more troubling is the erosion of net neutrality. In a report by Ray Lin, a student as UC Berkley, he defines net neutrality as “a network design paradigm that argues for broadband network providers to be completely detached from what information is sent over their networks.” The internet we know now is a neutral one, but that could soon change.

Preserving net neutrality is a cause that has drawn support from both the left (like the ACLU) and the conservative christian right. The Christian Coalition of America (CCA) writes:

“Net Neutrality” is an issue extremely important to America’s grassroots organizations and to those Americans who want to ensure the cable and phone companies controlling access to the Internet will not discriminate based on content.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s absolutely crucial that we leave the internet uncensored and neutral to promote a free flow of ideas. This point was further hammered home to me when I had the chance to interview Bob McChesney last month.  Our interview spanned a lot of topics, including the surveillance state and net neutrality. McChesney is a nationally acclaimed media critic and author. Here’s just a snippet of what he had to say about keeping the net neutral:

Today, the internet is one where, thanks to these companies knowing so much about us, the way to make money is selecting which ads we get, aimed right at us, creating even whole websites. As the creator of Google put it: we’re rapidly approaching a time where no two people see the same website when they go to it. They will know exactly what story we think they want based on what advertising preferences and their previous preferences, but they’ll put us all in little bubbles. But, at the same time what we’re finding now is that there’s been huge debate over the issue of net neutrality, which is the idea that ATT,Verizon and Comcast should not be allowed to censor who goes on their network and who doesn’t, and if they had that right, which they’re probably about to get, then it will be a test of this theory.

That quote certainly gave me pause, and I can only hope others have the same reaction. We are entering a very dangerous time if corporations will soon be able to decide what it is that we see and what it is that we don’t. It goes against our freedoms, it goes against our civil liberties and most importantly is goes against the basis of what our democracy was founded upon. I know I’ll continue to fight to keep the net neutral.

What Needs to Happen

It’s a scary world for a journalism major. As my graduation day grows closer, I’m starting to grapple with the reality that it may be difficult to make a living. Ideally, I’d like to find a job where I can report without compromising my morals while simultaneously being able to feed and clothe myself (as well as have a little fun. I am only human!)  

It’s a lofty dream, given that we hear day in and day out that the newspaper industry is in decline. Across the board, many of the papers that we hold as so-called bastions of American journalism are laying people off. Does this mean we should be fearful? Maybe, but more importantly it means we should be coming up with new solutions.

Increasingly, more people are turning to independent media for their news. Though they may not be watched massively domestically, Democracy Now! is looked to by much of the world for hard-hitting news and analysis. With the release of the now infamous Mitt Romney 47% video Mother Jones was thrust into the limelight as another reputable independent news source. As the landscape changes, perhaps we should look to organizations like these for answers.

On his Buzzmachine blog, Jeff Jarvis offers some tips to how to be a good entrepreneurial journalist in today’s day and age. It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’d like to shed light on some of the points that stuck out to me.

  1. Jarvis places a strong emphasis on having a marketing strategy. In other words, it’s not enough to just have a brave investigative journalism vision, you need to be able to sell your reporting. This can manifest itself through either corporate or foundational sponsorship or advertising, though these routes often lead to detrimental conflicts of interest. It can also come through reader support, though that’s often not enough and hard to get started on. Or, you can take a hybrid approach, much like Democracy Now which gets foundational funding, donations from viewers, as well as offering incentives for different donation levels.
  2. Jarvis expresses that though “journalistic entrepreneurship” is “not an oxymoron,” we still live in a difficult journalistic environment for indy outlets to survive. He writes:

 But we need an incubator. These businesses need ongoing advice and nurturing, most do. Just during the semester, I quickly learned that each student-entrepreneur and business needed even more individual attention than I’d anticipated; they and their needs were unique. If we are going to get innovation in the news and media businesses, then we need to bring help and resources to the effort. Just as big, old media companies can’t just sit there and think that the future will come to them — when, instead, it’s passing them by — so the industry has to actively support innovation with incubation.    

To achieve a utopian media environment we’re going to need a concerted effort from both independent journalists, and the media establishments. Journalists looking to start indy outlets best read up on their marketing if they hope to succeed, because Jarvis has taught us that a money-making model is key. But equally important is an industry shift, in which we re-allocate resources to support these indy-start ups. Will such a day come? We can only hope.

Glenn Greenwald on Ed Snowden Smear Campaign

Props to Glenn Greenwald for going onto CNN to denounce the media’s smear campaign against Ed Snowden. In the very beginning he explains why it’s problematic that our interest has shifted from the content of his leaks to the content of his character. It is both unfair and unjust to smear Ed Snowden and it, in my view, distracts us from the real problem at hand.

Mayhill Fowler: Occupying a Moral Grey Area

Citizen journalism witnessed new recognition in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. The Huffington Post’s Mayhill Fowler made national headlines on two occasions: publishing Obama’s so-called “elitist” comments when he said Americans in the heartland “cling to guns and religion” and publishing Bill Clinton’s comments in which he called a vanity fair reporter a “scumbag.” 

These revelations changed the course of public opinion surrounding both Obama and Clinton, but it also opened the floodgates to questions of Fowler’s ethical framework. Many have denounced Fowler for having “no professional training.” In the case of president Obama’s comments, Fowler went into a “closed” campaign event as an Obama campaign donor but then published comments that portrayed him in a bad light. This received a lot of backlash from the liberal blog community.  James Rainey of the LA Times elaborates:

Fowler said Monday that she had received about 200 e-mail messages that ranged from “creepy to threatening,” including a few death threats from purported Obama supporters. She said about 25 e-mails praised her.

Writers on the liberal website Daily Kos took up the complaints, accusing Fowler of intentionally undermining Obama and feigning support for the candidate to gain access to the San Francisco fundraiser where he made the controversial remarks April 6.

“It’s like the liberal blogosphere has issued a fatwa against me,” Fowler said in a telephone interview.

 Does the fact that Fowler gained access as a campaign donor rather than a reporter compromise her credibility? I wouldn’t say so, because in the end Obama did actually make these comments, and whether the liberal blogosphere likes it or not, he made them when he thought no reporters were present. I think that speaks mounds to the state of politics in this country, as well as the need for citizen journalists like Fowler to gain access to events that mainstream reporters cannot. However, this ethical dilemma gains more traction when looked at through the scope of the Clinton comments.

On Clinton, Fowler writes:

Tightly gripping this reporter’s hand and refusing to let go, Clinton heatedly denounced the writer, who is currently married to former Clinton White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers.

“[He’s] sleazy,” he said referring to Purdum. “He’s a really dishonest reporter. And one of our guys talked to him . . . And I haven’t read [the article]. But he told me there’s five or six just blatant lies in there. But he’s a real slimy guy,” the former president said.

When I reminded him that Purdum was married to his former press spokesperson Myers, Clinton was undeterred.

Clinton’s commentary was heated, the sort of material that any journalist would leap at the opportunity to publish, but Clinton did not know that his comments were on the record. Salon staff writer Alex Koppelman writes:

Mayhill Fowler, who writes for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project, got the quotes from Clinton after she told him she thought it was a “hatchet job,” and never identified herself as a reporter. Most journalists wouldn’t consider that sort of thing ethically pure…

Indeed, I had some ethical qualms with this method. Not only did Fowler ask Clinton a leading question to gain a heated response, but she didn’t identify herself as a reporter. Obviously, had Clinton known his words might have been published, he would have phrased his rhetoric differently. But, would the story have had the same impact if Clinton had given a rehearsed response?

I wouldn’t be too quick to sympathize with Clinton on this one, either. In another piece by Rainey in the LA Times he writes:

Fowler, at one point, interjected that Purdum, the author, is married to onetime Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Clinton retorted: “Yeah, that’s all right. He’s still a scumbag.”

A man on the rope line tried to distract Clinton with a personal appeal. “I grew up in Hope too,” the fan said. “Hope, North Dakota.”

Clinton wouldn’t be distracted. He continued on about the magazine and Purdum: “Let me tell you, he’s one of the guys, he’s one of the guys that propagated all those lies . . . ” Clinton ended the harangue by assuring, unpersuasively: “It didn’t bother me. It shouldn’t bother you.”

Whether or not Fowler identified herself as a reporter: Clinton had the opportunity to stop himself and blatantly ignored it. The aforementioned quote demonstrates this: both Fowler and another attendee gave Clinton ample opportunity to stop and rephrase his rhetoric but the tirade continued. Isn’t that worth reporting?

I have trouble picking a definite side on this issue. It’s so important to me that Fowler was able to gain access to information that a mainstream reporter couldn’t have gotten. I think both stories were very much worth knowing, but I still question Fowler’s ethics. I’ve learned countless times that disclosure is key in maintaining accountability, and Fowler really didn’t disclose much. That being said, I’m glad she reported what she did.

Becoming What We Fear

When someone utters the words “state-run media,” a negative picture appears. Instantly, our minds will gravitate to media censorship in China. In fact, it’s hard to find any article (in the US press) about the Chinese press that doesn’t decry the system for being state-run. The press in the United States is always looking for reasons to proclaim the merits of a “free and independent press” by comparing us to places like China, where the government wields strict control over what its citizenry sees.

These fears have manifested themselves at home as well, with pushes to defund NPR on claims that the government shouldn’t have influence over the news we receive, and that NPR is too close to a state-run model.

What we don’t realize is that we already have state-run media, just through the form of corporate ownership. If the media is only willing to report what people in power are saying, then our news is still controlled by the state. When’s the last time you’ve seen anything covered in the media that democrats and republicans agree upon (surveillance, capitalism as a system and the global economy’s negative impacts just to name a few?)

A perfect example of this is how the mainstream has covered the affairs surrounding Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.

Jeff Cohen elaborates on the Huffington Post:

The Edward Snowden leaks have revealed a U.S. corporate media system at war with independent journalism. Many of the same outlets — especially TV news — that missed the Wall Street meltdown and cheer-led the Iraq invasion have come to resemble state-controlled media outlets in their near-total identification with the government as it pursues the now 30-year-old whistleblower.

While an independent journalism system would be dissecting the impacts of NSA surveillance on privacy rights, and separating fact from fiction, U.S. news networks have obsessed on questions like: How much damage has Snowden caused?How can he be brought to justice?

If our press is only willing to report what those in power say are OK, then our press is no better than the system we decry overseas. So long as corporate and political interest hold more weight than public interest, how can we hope to have a press that holds people in power accountable? It’s certainly a question worth asking.